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Interfaith IMPACT

Why Should People of Faith Care about Health Care Reform?

Biblical and Theological Perspectives

In the Hebrew Scriptures, shalom is related to both creation and covenant. Genesis 1 recounts how God provides for all the needs of humanity. In essence, the wholeness that God intended in creation is expressed as shalom, including a vision of harmony in the created order.

When shalom is broken, covenant becomes the means to restore the proper relationship with God and within community. This imposes a responsibility for self and others, especially for the most vulnerable within society (cf. Deuteronomy 10:18). They are identified in the classical biblical terms as "orphans, widows and strangers." Shalom and covenant, therefore, are closely related to the biblical concepts of justice and righteousness.

The Right to Health

In the modern world, we are confronted by signs of a lack of shalom. The health care crisis in our nation is a painful example of how some people are alienated from wellness and healing, which in turn alienates them from full participation in community. The experience culled from the Judeo-Christian tradition clearly shows that righteousness and justice cannot be simply abstract terms, but must be promoted in relation to the human situation. Even as we affirm that all are created in God’s image, we should also affirm that this makes each human life as precious as the next. Therefore, it would seem to be a violation of God’s intended human dignity to deny health care to millions of men, women and children in the United States.

The debate over health care is not just a political issue, but neither is it limited to economics. These aspects must be addressed, to be sure, but it is crucial to see health care in its fullness as an ethical issue. Health care in this nation is a crisis of social and moral integrity.

Although the religious community often reflects society’s vacillation, biblical and theological resources provide the means to challenge the prevailing values and offer an alternative vision. It is important to see how biblical witness informs us in dealing with the health care dilemma.

What is the just thing to do in a nation that spends more per capita than any other country on health care costs, yet ranks nineteenth in the world in infant mortality rates? Internationally, the United States is recognized as having the finest medical talent and facilities in the world; but it is a national disgrace that homeless men and women live twenty years less than the national average, mainly due to sickness which is certainly exacerbated by life on the streets.

That such disparities exist in the world’s wealthiest country should be cause for alarm. The Hebrew prophets can provide some insights for dealing with social ills even today. Micah 6:8 is recognized as a summary of the demands of God: "And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Walter Brueggemann has said, "In biblical faith, the doing of justice is the primary expectation of God." Compassion and justice must be made concrete at the points at which people’s circumstances bring them pain.

The reign of the Sovereign God encompasses people who are usually denied access to the benefits of the social, political and economic order. The poor, the suffering, the oppressed are intended by God to become participants in the promises of God’s reign. Not one of God’s children should be denied access to health and wholeness.

There is a danger when we start excluding some people from the benefits of society. This is well illustrated by the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, two women going through some transitions in life. They were widows without male children, and thus were among the society’s vulnerable. Moreover, Ruth was a foreigner whose ethnic group was not welcomed by the Jews. The women were without clout and Ruth was an "outsider" who could have been resented by the community. Fortunately, the story has a happy ending. Naomi receives healing and full restoration to community through her kinsmen, Boaz. Ruth is a source of benefit for the whole Jewish people because she marries Boaz and becomes the great-grandmother of King David.

Our society today includes people who are undergoing transitions in life – for example, someone who loses a job, is new to the country, is homeless, or lives in an area where adequate resources are evaporating. Like Ruth, many people who are in such a fragile position are willing to work hard so that they will not be a burden on society. However, we need some Boazes in public as well as private places.

Ministry of Healing

It may be easier to intellectualize concerns for compassion and justice than to practice them (cf. James 2:14). The Christian tradition, however, has taught an urgency in doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. Mark, the earliest Gospel, reflects Jesus’s immediate attention to his role in hastening the reign of God. His preaching and teaching were intertwined with healing. Believers did not accept this passively, but actively advocated for themselves and others (e.g. Mark 2:1-12, 7:24-30, 10:46-52).

Even theological reflection on the ministry of Jesus cannot separate the concern for spirit and body. The incarnation is a sign of God’s new creation and relationship between God and humanity. Jesus said, :I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

Our biblical faith, however, does not assert that human life will not contain suffering or that illness can always be avoided. We acknowledge limits on our ability to promote health, heal disease, eliminate suffering or maintain life. We know that death will finally overtake us all because life and death are set within the pattern of creation.

God the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer is sovereign over all of life. People of faith must respond to God’s rule by service in all areas of life. They should assist and prod the civil state to exercise justice. The promotion of health and the relief of suffering thus are aspects of the calling to be active in the state as well as in our congregations.

From InterfaithIMPACT's Health Care Advocacy Kit (1994)
Written by Bernadine Grant McRipley, Staff Associate, Presbyterian Washington Office
110 Maryland Avenue, NE, Washington DC 20002
Adapted from an article published by the Presbyterian Church (USA) for Stewardship of Public Life

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